The Old Wives' Tale
|Publisher||Chapman and Hall|
|Media type||Print (hardcover)|
The Old Wives' Tale is a novel by Arnold Bennett, first published in 1908. It deals with the lives of two very different sisters, Constance and Sophia Baines, following their stories from their youth, working in their mother's draper's shop, into old age. It is generally regarded as one of Bennett's finest works. It covers a period of about 70 years from roughly 1840 to 1905, and is set in Burslem and Paris.
Bennett was initially inspired to write the book by a chance encounter in a Parisian restaurant. In the introduction to the book, he says
...an old woman came into the restaurant to
dine. She was fat, shapeless, ugly, and grotesque. She had a ridiculous voice, and ridiculous gestures. It was easy to see that she lived alone, and that in the long lapse of years she had developed the kind of peculiarity which induces guffaws among the thoughtless.
I reflected, concerning the grotesque diner: "This woman was once
young, slim, perhaps beautiful; certainly free from these ridiculous mannerisms. Very probably she is unconscious of her singularities. Her case is a tragedy. One ought to be able to make a heartrending novel out of the history of a woman such as she." Every stout, ageing woman is not grotesque—far from it!—but there is an extreme pathos in the mere fact that every stout ageing woman was once a young girl with the unique charm of youth in her form and movements and in her mind. And the fact that the change from the young girl to the stout ageing woman is made up of an infinite number of infinitesimal changes, each unperceived by her, only intensifies the pathos.
The book is broken up into four parts. The first section, "Mrs Baines" details the adolescence of both Sophia and Constance, and their life in their father's shop and house (a combined property). The father is ill and bedridden, and the main adult in their life is Mrs Baines, their mother.
By the end of the first book, Sophia (whose name reflects her sophistication, as opposed to the constant Constance) has eloped with a travelling salesman. Constance meanwhile marries Mr Povey, who works in the shop.
The second part, "Constance", details the life of Constance from that point forward up until the time she is reunited with her sister in old age. Her life, although outwardly prosaic, is nevertheless filled with personal incident, including the death of her husband, Mr Povey, and her concerns about the character and behaviour of her son.
The third part, "Sophia", carries forward the story of what happened to Sophia after her elopement. Abandoned by her husband in Paris, Sophia eventually becomes the owner of a successful pensione.
The final part, "What Life Is", details how the two sisters are eventually reunited. Sophia returns to England and the house of her childhood, where Constance still lives.
Details and legacy
According to Tom Wolfe (Hooking Up, p. 148), the book was "wildly successful," with the author demurring with "I don't read my reviews, I measure them."
In 1998, the Modern Library ranked The Old Wives' Tale No. 87 on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century.
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